Paralympic| Twenty-year-old Jessica Long is a stunningly beautiful young woman, no doubt about it. She is also kind, much-loved, and phenomenally successful in her chosen field. She is a Paralympic swimmer.
Some folks might think, well, how nice for her. She’s just one of those people good things get handed to on a silver platter. Looks, athletic ability, fame. Some people have all the luck.
Turns out, in Jessica’s case, “luck” has nothing to do with it. Hard work, yes. Fierce determination, absolutely. Unwavering tenacity, oh yeah. But luck? Not so much.
Jessica came to the United States when she was just 13 months old. She was born in Siberia and living in a Russian orphanage when her Baltimore parents adopted her and a three-year-old boy who also lived at the orphanage. Both she and her non-biological brother had physical challenges. For her brother, it was a cleft lip. For Jessica, it was fibular hemimelia, a condition affecting her lower legs.
“I was missing the fibula bone and most of the other little bones in my ankles, heels, and toes,” says Jessica. After consulting with a number of doctors about options for the tiny toddler, Jessica’s parents made the informed decision to have the then-18-month-old’s legs amputated below the knee so that she would be able to wear prosthetic legs.
“And within two weeks I was up walking around, I never needed physical therapy,” she says. “I wanted to do it all on my own. I think that’s always just been my personality. When I saw other kids, I wanted to do what they did, I didn’t want to be held back because of my legs.”
Safe to say, some 18 years later, nothing has held Jessica back. Long is living and training in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, preparing for the June swimming trails ahead of the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Long currently holds 20 world event swimming records, having exploded onto the Paralympic scene at the ripe age of 12, when she was the youngest competitor to make the 2004 team. She stunned the sports world (not to mention her family) in Athens by winning three gold medals. Her winning curve was set on a steep trajectory that hasn’t shown a hint of leveling since.
Interestingly, swimming was not Jessica’s first sport of choice. As a young child, she loved gymnastics. She was quite good, but her parents worried about the toll gymnastics was taking on her legs.
“I was always very active,” says Jessica. “I tried a lot of sports – basketball, cheerleading, gymnastics, skiing, everything you can pretty much think of that doesn’t involve running or kicking a ball. I’m one of six kids and we were all home-schooled, which worked out well with all the surgeries I had to have as my bones grew. I loved gymnastics, but I did it on my knees, and my parents were afraid I would damage them. So they basically gave me an ultimatum, saying, ‘Jess, if you want to continue with gymnastics you’re going to wear your legs, or you’re going to have to find another sport.’”
As chance would have it, Jessica’s grandparents had a swimming pool in their back yard, and the Long family often congregated there.
“I’ve always loved to swim,” says Jessica. “Every Sunday after church, I’d be the first one in and the last one out. I could spend hours [in the water], I mean I thought I was a mermaid! It’s like a whole other world down there. So after the whole gymnastics incident, and having to decide, it just seemed right.”
When Jessica was 10, her grandmother saw a notice about joining a swim team, and encouraged Jessica to try out. “I made the team, and loved the kids I swam with. They treated me just like everyone else. And I could beat them, or most of them. Most people didn’t know I was missing my legs until I got out of the pool.”
At one of Jessica’s swim meets, an event official approached her parents and said based on her times, they might want to look into the Paralympics.
“We didn’t know what the Paralympics were,” recalls Jessica, “but we decided to give it a try, and I went to a national championship meet and I ended up winning two gold medals and a silver. The next year was the Paralympic trails. My family went to the trials, but only my dad and I woke up early on the morning after the swim meet to go hear who got announced. I had made great friends there, and I wanted to be there to see who made the team. I never thought I’d make the team, but I kept hoping. Then they called my name, and you know, it was the start of something huge.”
Jessica hopes to be entered in all seven individual swimming events in London, as well as two relays. “The competition is over 10 days, and it’s exhausting,” she says. “And of course that’s what we train for, knowing there will be exhaustion, not really eating enough food, competing morning and night, stress, and talking to reporters.”
Her typical day at the USOC starts early with two hours in the pool, followed by an hour of weights, then another two hours of swimming in the evening, an hour of yoga, an hour of abs, and careful attention paid to diet and rest.
Jessica is determined, and she’s ready. With two Paralympics under her belt (Athens 2004, and Beijing in 2008, in which she won four gold and a silver and bronze) Long looks forward to the London experience.
“I’m 20 now,” she says. “I’ve grown up with athletes all around the world, and we’re all at the age where we’re really just ready to enjoy each other’s company, and obviously swim as fast as we can.”
For Jessica Long, being in the water is being where she belongs. “It’s truly where I’m equal with everyone else. It’s a completely different world, I’m just there. I can hold my breath and hear the sound in the water, smell the chlorine, it’s just completely home.”
What’s important, says Long, is for each of us to find what we enjoy doing and what we’re good at. “You can always set goals and you can always start new and fresh, it’s never too late. Just stay active and be determined.”
Determination, one might say, is something Jessica Long knows a thing or two about.
Follow Jessica on Twitter at JessicaLong92.